Mark Twain's River
DIXON WECTER has succeeded Bernard DeVoto as Literary Editor of the Mark Twain estate. In August of last year he and his wife made the trip by riverboat down the Mississippi with Mark’s pilot book to help him pick up some of the old landmarks. Now he is back at his desk in the Huntington Library, where as Chairman of the Research Group he will continue his editing of the letters and papers of Mark Twain.
by DIXON WECTER
MOST travelers today glimpse the Mississippi from railway or highway bridge as a swirling brown flood, or from the air as a huge glistening snake. Very few see the Lower Mississippi that wayfarers all knew a century ago. It is a thousand-mile procession of slowly caving banks, often crumbling visibly in the wash of a passing boat; smudges of low forest, cabins in the cotton, lagoons with cranes; dawns of river fog and sunsets of deep red and gold above the endless panoramic strip of water. And there are islands, bars, bends, and cutoffs with once familiar names like Hen and Chickens, Pair o’ Dice, Hard Scrabble, Hole-in-theWall, Whiskey Chute, Shoofly Bar, Crablouse, Deadman Bend (where murdered men from the bawdyhouses of Natchez-under-the-Hill used to wash up).
Several million Americans who live in towns along the big river are ignorant of its reaches not flanked by motor roads. Several thousand more who live on the river itself know only pieces of it — these being the tribe of shanty-boaters, who moor to its banks their dilapidated houseboats, dodging life’s responsibilities and taxes, fishing and loafing and appropriating the first six rows of corn or sugar cane in any riverside field, upon which they assert a kind of common-law claim.
Among several ways of seeing the Mississippi, the hardiest is to build a raft and float downstream, the costliest to buy or rent a boat. The only passenger craft now plying between river ports are the Greene Line steamboats out of Cincinnati, owned by the celebrated Ma Greene, sole licensed master and first-class pilot of her sex in river history. A softspoken matriarch, who when not at the wheel is apt to be sewing for Presbyterian charities, Captain Greene bears no resemblance to Tugboat Annie. A trip on her fanciest boat, the rebuilt Delta Queen, is the most comfortable way of seeing the river. But the most interesting, I think, is a voyage such as my wife and I made in August of last year, by towboat, behind a fleet of barges — called “the tow” despite the fact that it is pushed, not pulled. Since these boats never take paying guests — we bunked in quarters marked “Two Engineers” — this procedure demands a bit of luck. As for us, my wife was a friend of the owner’s niece, and I with a Mark Twain job on my hands furnished a commodity in which I specialize — namely, a pretext.
At Louisville we loaded our car on one of these barges, and by towboat went down the Ohio to Cairo — pronounced, we soon learned, not as in Egypt but as in syrup — and then down the Mississippi to New Orleans. On the down trip nine miles an hour is good going; we made it in ten days. Upstream takes about three times as long.
It was wonderful for sunning, reading, contemplation, and sleep. To stand at the head of the tow, a quarter of a mile from the engines and out of earshot from either bank, borne soundlessly down the current, is pure hypnosis. Nights on the water are seldom hot, and mosquitoes seem to avoid midchannel.
Meals are the happy diversion they always become on shipboard, save perhaps for breakfast, announced by a dinner bell rung at. 5.30 A.M. all over the boat with sadistic satisfaction. Around a huge battery of condiments at the table’s center appears a fabulous fare. Rivermen demand two kinds of meat and at least six vegetables at lunch and dinner with the accent upon favorites of the South like okra, black-eyed peas, hominy, grits. Hot biscuits too, harpooned by the crew with undisguised relish. Steamboat coffee is proverbial for strength and heat, at all hours of day and night. When the pilot blows a couple of short toots on the whistle, it signifies either that he wants to pass an approaching vessel on his starboard or that he wants coffee — the latter a slightly less grandiose blast — whereupon a mate comes running from the galley, across the main deck and hurricane deck, up to the third deck (formerly texas), and thence to the pilothouse with a steaming cup. After a midnight emergency, like serious engine trouble or accidents to the tow, crew - men who have sweated it out will head for the galley to get food and drink from the patient women who cook — and are there joined by others who, according to the custom of crises, crowd in sleepy-eyed but eager to eat and share the excitement.
Most of the deck hands, and the first and second mate who straw-boss them, come from Southern river towns and farms, and in boyhood fell in love with the muddy water. They do not know the channel as pilots do, but almost every mile of the scenery is full of memories and interest. There is Cave In Rock on the Ohio, a once famous den of cutthroats which they are now clearing out for a state park; here is a spot above Golconda, Illinois, where a graybeard used to pop out of his house at every passing boat and wave a big American flag round and round his head as if crazy; and there on a bluff near Belmont Point, Missouri, a woman sometimes comes out on her porch stark naked to gesture to the fascinated crew, and small boats are said to have stopped to transact business; and here is the Arkansas village where our first mate, Brownie, grew up, although (as he says) he always went over to the next town to do his fighting, because the fines were cheaper. Our captain tolerates no drinking on board, and put ashore an oiler who had got pie-eyed — taking care, however, to send after him the set of dentures he lost with his dinner on the main deck. Our second mate Whitey, with platinum hair, white teeth, a friendly grin, and cap at a cocky angle, is an orphan of the Memphis waterfront, exsodajerker and Marine Corps veteran, but says he is only eighteen; his declaration that his chief interests in life are “beer and women" leaves us skeptical. All belong to the National Maritime Union, swear by Joe Curran, but add, “We had a good union till the Communists came in and spoiled it.”
TODAY, unknown to most citizens, the Mississippi is carrying over ten times the volume of freight it bore in the heyday of the steamboats. It has come full circle, from barges to barges. When Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to Mr. Jefferson, its commerce moved by those massive barges called keelboats and broadhorns. Then came the age of steam and the glory of the packets, which slowly waned under competition from the railroads until by the eve of the First World War the river found itself almost empty. But two great wars and depression-born economies of the middle years, plus the Diesel engine, have brought back the barge as the river’s dominant craft — now a great metal hull built to hold twelve hundred tons of iron pipe, steel rails, coal, sulphur, or a fleet of trucks. A dozen barges of assorted sizes are lashed together by twoinch rope and steel cable (“lines” and “wires” respectively in the understatement of the river). This leaves only small interstices where they fail to dovetail, called “duck ponds,” in which the current boils like a whirlpool. These openings are the chief hazard to deck hands, who clamber all over the tow by day and night, inspecting cargo, tightening chains and ratchets, setting signal lights.
This caravan of barges, stretching a thousand feet and able to carry enough oil to fill a train of tank cars seven miles long, is shoved ahead by the “towing knees” of the comparatively small boat on which officers and crew live. The pilot, perched in his glass house, surveys the acres of heavy cargo thrust out before him like a monstrous snout. Its momentum, joined to the sweep of the current and often the wind, makes even his 1500 to 2500 horsepower Diesels seem puny. He learns the strategy of combining all these forces. To stop quickly or swerve abruptly is impossible, and of course in rounding a point — whatever the curve or visibility — he has to lead with his nose.
The decisions of the pilot of today are rarely the hair-trigger ones of the old packet-racing days, but may be no less crucial. And once made — in respect to passing another boat, sometimes in stormy weather, or running a ticklish bit of river, or shaving the concrete piers of a bridge — he may have to wait anxious minutes for the upshot. Like the old steamboat pilots, he knows how to ride the current downstream, and on the up trip to nose out the slack or “easy” water. But he must also master techniques developed by the towboat era, like “flanking,” which means backing the engines and utilizing the swing of the current to carry his cumbersome tow around a narrow bend.
An observer can gauge the approach of crisis by a pilot’s behavior. When he smells it coming, he unwinds his legs that have been hitched over the levers, pushes back his swivel chair, and stands up to his job. When it bursts upon him suddenly, he kicks over the chair and freezes onto the controls. But always, whether the pilot is a college man or self-made deck hand, tobacco-chewer or total abstainer, he patronizes incessantly a noble brass spittoon that is carefully polished for him every day. A few new towboats sport among their pilothouse installations a dentist’s cuspidor with running water, but this is manifestly effete.
Captain and pilot, who spell each other at the helm, are the heirs of those starchy boys known to every reader of Life on the Mississippi, the lords of the wheelhouse with their kid gloves and diamond breastpins, who ruled rococo palaces bearing names like “Morning Star,” “Belle of the Bends,” and “Great Republic.” Today’s pilot wears a sweat shirt or sport shirt, but draws $500 to $600 a month, twice the wages of the old days — though needless to add they are shrunken dollars. In the absence of passengers, and the absurdity of racing anything when pushing fifteen thousand tons of crude oil, the urge toward exhibitionism is gone. And the boat herself is no glamour girl, but a utilitarian drudge. She often bears her owner’s name, sometimes a comic label like “Pollywog" or “Bullcalf,”or a battle name from early days of the last war — like “Coral Sea,” “Guadalcanal,” or (our boat) “Casablanca” — when many towboats were built to carry supplies to Gulf ports for North Africa and the Mediterranean. The fabulous old sternwheeler Sprague, for forty-five years known affectionately on the river as “Big Mama,”has just retired, leaving her crown as most powerful towboat to the Federal Barge Line’s new 3200 horsepower Diesel Harry Truman.
The master pilot who learns his steersman the river — the verb “to teach” being unknown in these parts — has a different problem on the Ohio. Seasonal low water has called forth an intricate system of locks, demanding delicate maneuvers between concrete wings and much patience when a long tow has to be broken apart and shoved through piecemeal. Yet the Ohio’s green waters, flowing over a hard riverbed between banks that always seem companionably near, are not likely to betray a pilot who learned them months or years ago. But the Mississippi is a restless giant, forever tearing down, building, shifting its sandy channel. Often this is a process of simplification, where a bend is abandoned in favor of a cutoff, shortening the total mileage for navigation from port to port. Mark Twain predicted that this would go on until St. Louis found itself next door to New Orleans. An obstruction on the Ohio is apt to be submerged rock, but on the Mississippi a sand bar. Accidents on the Ohio are thus rarer but more serious. A few boats have been fitted with radar, to show up buoys, locks, chutes, bridges, reefs. Most pilots are doubtful, saying that radar can’t “see” the channel, which is the main thing. But it will certainly lessen risks and delays from fog, which has usually meant tying up to a couple of big trees on the bank.
Our sole mishap occurred midway between Greenville and Vicksburg one night, by the light of a red quarter moon. Having pestered the captain for hundreds of miles about places mentioned in Mark Twain’s apprentice book, we finally asked about Stack Island, which he noted as a bad spot; but finding that it lay some miles ahead, we called it a day.
After we had been asleep an hour or more, a terrific jolt yanked us halfway out of our bunks. (Astern, the fat cook Tiny suffered worse indignities: she was hurled clear of her berth, and her suitcases in the rack above cascaded one by one upon her head, until her screams roused the soundest sleepers.) Hastily looking out, we saw the big tow disintegrating — a dozen barges snapping their cables with a noise like gunshot, lurching and grinding as they pulled away from each other, then scattering downstream like lost sheep. Our towboat had run hard aground on a sand bar, while the momentum of the shallow-draft barges hurtled them on. Two deck hands, having failed in a running spurt to reach the towboat, stood forlornly on the gunnel of a runaway barge careening down the river. And one of the barges, we remembered, was carrying, wedged by thin wood-blocks on deck, the new automobile for which we had waited years. Snatching bathrobes we climbed up to the pilothouse. “Here’s your Stack Island,” said our mentor glumly. And I reflected that Clemens’s notes after ninety years were not yet obsolete.
For nearly an hour the boat’s twin-screw propellers churned the sandy bottom, while decks trembled and sashes rattled. At last our boat writhed free of the boiling mud and began the job of chasing down her tow. The moon had set, and a sky full of large summer stars shut down upon the seething water, through which an occasional black log blundered. In the beams of our two searchlights a thousand insects were spinning madly. Finally these fingers of light groped for and caught an object on the shore, canted at an angle of forty-five degrees. It was the first of our fugitive barges. We weighed the probability that we would be pedestrians for several years more.
But at length we sighted the rest of the tow, and saw our car still perched precariously atop its barge, and also observed (with more humanitarian interest) the missing deck hands there beside it. After about two hours’ hard work by captain and crew — while my wife and I, the alleged two engineers, lent only our mute sympathy — the tow was triumphantly reassembled, lashed and chained together, and the controls passed to our red-haired co-pilot Pinkie, choleric veteran of forty years on the Mississippi. Off we started. And then, with an awesome crack of doom, the M.V. Casablanca ran smack upon another mud flat while her tow ripped apart and dispersed helter-skelter down the river. Recalling what my hero had said about the old-time river pilot’s language — edged with brimstone and illuminated by the lightning of blasphemy — I involuntarily braced myself.
“Oh, shoot,” said Pinkie, and spat copiously.
Later I learned that he had had a directive from the management when we sailed, reminding him that a lady was aboard; that explained much. But for the moment it seemed as if another grand old tradition of the river had fallen upon the sere and yellow.
The chase of barges took in all six hours, but sunrise saw us swinging once more into the brown tide of the Mississippi, rolling toward the Gulf, as we two sat complacently in our rocking chairs on deck.